Regardless where your passion lies it’s difficult to make an impact in this world without two basic attributes: a communications network and administrative ability. The environmental movement and ecological awareness prompted the creation of nature centers throughout the world. The founders were environmentally passionate, but not necessarily savvy business people. Twenty-five years ago a grass-roots coalition formed the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) to provide a mechanism for nature centers to share ideas and become more effective organizations.
Today, more than 600 members representing over 350 institutions around the world belong to ANCA. Jen Levy, Executive Director, shares a spacious office with her mostly volunteer assistants in a grand building that houses a number of non-profit groups as well as a local museum. It’s one of the few buildings in Logan more than fifty years old, and well worth preserving. ANCA is a small and nimble organization. Eight years ago, when Jen became director after holding a variety of positions that connected people to nature, she wanted to stay in Logan. So ANCA relocated here.
“Every wildlife and forestry program has a shadow world of boards, budgets and staffs. That is what ANCA focuses on – making those aspects of organizations effective. We are seeing a significant number of people retiring from nature centers, many of whom have roots in the 1970’s.” These visionaries are often being replaced by people with more administrative capabilities.
Each nature center’s mission is shaped by its context. Urban centers connect people to the natural environment in a more cultivated way than rural centers or places with a preservation focus. Universities have consortium programs with centers that include education and research. There are publicly funded nature centers that are integrated into their city’s budget. And then are there are outliers, like the Foxfield Preserve Nature Cemetery in Ohio. Still, every nature center has an educational component, and that component is evolving. “The traditional fourth grade field trip is changing. More centers are concentrating on educational programs for the entire family that often stretch over time. People want an extended connection. Centers tailor programs to the science curriculum of local schools.”
The number of nature centers continues to increase, and their role in communities continues to expand. “We are shifting from an attitude of, ‘we educate, not advocate,’ to acknowledging that we need to advocate. We are beginning to see a shift from people being afraid that their kid will get burned by the sun or bitten by mosquitoes to an understanding that we need unstructured play time, outside; that people need to get dirty. We want to get away from ‘look don’t touch’ to ‘touch all you want.’”